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MEG JOHN BARKER: My name is Meg John Barker.And I'm a senior lecturer in psychologyat the Open University.[Dr. Meg John Barker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology,The Open University]And I do a number of things really.I teach at The Open University, but I'm also a therapist,as well.And also somewhat of an activist involvedwith mental health and sexuality and gender.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And I write a lot, so I like writing bothfor academics and also therapistsbut also for general audiences.So I keep a blog, as well as that.[What does Mindfulness mean to you,or how would you describe it to your students?]Mindfulness is quite an interesting topic these daysbecause there's a number of different definitions around.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: When I try and describe it, I think about itas being a kind of attention.So it's people trying to bring their attention to whateveris going on around them at that time.And it's got a certain quality to itthat's a kind of a curious attention,a kind of gentle kind of attention.The easiest thing to describe it reallyis using the kind of mindfulness meditation.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So the classic meditation that people do in mindfulnessis breathing.And basically you're sitting therefor 5 minutes or 10 minutes and you're justtrying to bring your attention to your breath goingin and out.And what you notice is that your thoughts will go offspinning off in all kinds of directions.You'll get an itch and you'll want to scratch it.You'll hear a noise and be distracted.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And you just try and bring your attention back every timethat happens to the breathing going in and out.And you try and do it gently.Not in a kind of, oh, you're bad for having drifted offand thought about this or that or the other,but just gently noticing I kind of got distracted thereand bringing your attention back to the breath.And there's a curiousness to it.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: Kind of curiously noticing that you dotend to get distracted, that you dotend to think about other things, rather than kindof being hard on yourself for it.[What first inspired you to start working the fieldof Mindfulness?]For me I started working with mindfulnessbecause I found it useful myself really.So I think about 10 years ago I got introducedto some of the basic ideas of Buddhism and meditation.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And I found it extremely helpful for dealingwith times of trouble and just as a daily kind of wayof approaching life.So when people began to get more excited about mindfulnessin the last 5 or 10 years, I was already kind of engaged with itand just really wanted to bring it into my work.I found it very useful with clients.They seem to really appreciate someof the ideas for mindfulness that I bring into my therapy.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: [How has the field of Mindfulness changed in recentyears, and what academic developments do you considermost significant?]Mindfulness has changed a lot in recent years.So it's just really taken off as a topic.And lots and lots of people are interested in it in a waythat they weren't before.So for a start, people like NICE are bringing itinto their guidelines for how therapists shouldwork with depression and anxiety and problems like that.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: Also there are a lot of scientistsstudying mindfulness.There is a great deal of interestin what does mindfulness do to the brain and kind of doingstudies of people who are long term meditatorsand finding that you can illustrate kind of what'shappening if you take MRI scans or similar kinds of scansof their brains.There is a lot of interest in measuring mindfulnessand finding out what things people cando to make themselves more or less mindful.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: But all of those things are kind of bringingthe scientific approach to it.And sometimes I think that that goes a littletoo far in trying to kind of pin it down and measure it.And almost saying that if we can't illustrate itin the brain, than nothing's really happening.And I think we need to tune in a bit more just to people'sexperiences and how useful they're finding itand actually talk to people about how they're engagingwith mindfulness in their daily lives.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So, in a way, I'd like to see the kindof quantitative experimental researchthat people are doing be complimented by some morequalitative in depth research on what this experience islike for people.[What new directions in the field of Mindfulness do youfind most exciting?]There is a smaller number of peopleat the moment who are trying to thinkabout mindfulness more from a social perspective,thinking about social mindfulness or the waysin which mindfulness might influence our relationshipsif we start thinking about our relationshipsin a mindfulness way.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And I'm really excited about those kinds of developmentsbecause a lot so far it's really focused on the individual.So trying to help an individual person deal with their painor with anxiety or stress or depression.But it hasn't really engaged as muchwith how can we help people in their relationshipsand also what implications might it have for us as a society,as a whole.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: I think those are really relevant because I thinkas a society we've got to a pointwhere we are really kind of focusedon trying to get the things that we wantand not have any of the things that we don't want.You know, we live in quite a cravingculture driven by consumerism.People are constantly being told in a waythere is something wrong with them.And if they could just buy this product or watch this TV showor read this self help book, then theycould improve themselves.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: Mindfulness is a really good counter to that kind of culturebecause it's about saying actually who you areand where you are is OK.That we don't need to be constantly tryingto strive for these kinds of changes and selftransformations.And it's also got a lot in there about compassionand about engaging with other peoplein a mindful way, which means kind of being present to whoyou are with at the time and kind of giving themyour attention and trying to see thingsfrom their point of view.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And we kind of really need a loadof that at the moment as a society.It's a very different approach to the kind of approachwhere you're just trying tog get what you want from peoplebut rather to engage with them in a compassionate way.[What is the origin of Mindfulness?]So mindfulness has its origins in Buddhismand the kind of Buddhist philosophy,although there are lots of different kinds of Buddhismthat exist because this is a kind of spiritual beliefsystem that is developed over many, many hundredsand thousands of years now.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: But the basic idea behind it was the idea that when we suffer,it's rooted in a kind of pattern of craving.So it's the thing I was saying about people tryingto get everything that they want and notget the things that they don't want.The way Buddhist philosophy understoodit is that that's the kind of approach peoplehave to life-- a craving approachof trying to get the things that get pleasureand trying to avoid the things that give them pain.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And what that means in our daily livesis that kind of whatever's happening, whatever we'regetting approached with, we tend to respond inthat way of trying to figure out is it a good thing, and if so,I want it.Kind of grab hold of it.Or is it a bad thing in which case I don't want it.I want to avoid it or I want to get rid of it.And mindfulness or Buddhist philosophyis saying that that approach to the things of lifeis what causes us to suffer.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So, for example, if you wake up in the morningand you're not feeling great, it'sthat tendency to immediately try and get rid of that bad feelingand think what's wrong with me, what's going on,why am I having this unhappy experience, thatactually spirals us and leaves usin a worse place than when we started.Whereas if we can just kind of notice a tough feelingor we can notice joy or we can notice fear and not tryand layer on all of these other emotions on top of it,then we can be in a better place.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: [How can therapists and counselors incorporateMindfulness into their work?]So therapists who want to engage with mindfulness,there is a number of ways that you can incorporate itas a therapist or a counselor.So one obvious way is as a sort of set of techniques and toolsto teach to clients.And that's been the main approach so farof therapy and counseling has beento learn these kind of mindfulness meditationsand techniques of mindfulness like a kindof three-minute breathing space isone of the classic techniques, teach it to clientsand then they can bring it into their daily lives.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And, of course, that has a lot to offer.Another way though that therapistsmight engage with mindfulness is by doing it themselves.And there's a good argument that therapists ought to reallypractice mindfulness themselves if they are going to teach itto clients, because otherwise it kind of sets up an us and themas if only clients are the people who suffer and needmindfulness and therapists don't.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And, of course, actually it's beneficial to all of us.And the other things about cultivating mindfulnessas a therapist yourself is it helps youwith the therapeutic kind of skills.So one thing that we have to do as therapistsis attend to people.We have to focus our attention a lot for a long period of time.And, obviously, mindfulness is allabout learning a focused attention.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So it can really help with that.It can also help a lot with empathy,because there are kind of meditations involving empathyand compassion that we can do.Empathy is not necessarily somethingthat comes naturally to people.And mindfulness can offer a set of practicesto help us develop empathy.And finally it can help us develop the abilityto kind of withstand difficult feelings.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So if you're a therapist, you've gotclients coming to you who have very difficult experiences.They may have very powerful emotions in the room.And your task, in a way, is to kind of sit strong and solidin the face of all of that.And, again, mindfulness is a practicewhereby we sit with whatever comes up for us even whenwe're experiencing really difficult stuff.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: In a way, the idea of having a meditation practiceis like you'll do it every day and some days you'llfeel neutral, some days you'll feel in a really bad way,other days you'll feel great.And whatever comes you're like the mountainand whatever the weather is passing by,you just stay kind of grounded.So it's a really useful set of practices for a therapist.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: [How does Mindfulness work with the most common mental healthdifficulties?]So probably the most common mental health problemsthat we see as therapists would be depression and anxiety.Mindfulness has a number of useful things to bring.I guess one of the first ones is that it'sabout cultivating the skill to just be with the emotion you'rehaving, rather than layering other emotions on top of it.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So one thing with depression that is extremely commonis to have the initial feeling of sadness or melancholiaor lowness or flatness and to feel bad about itand to get straight in with self criticism.Angry at myself for being depressed.Ashamed of myself for guilty about being depressed and nothaving much energy for other people.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And it's that habit of layering emotions on top of emotionsfeeling like it's not OK to be sad, it's not OK to be angry,and then having all these other emotions on top.So the practice of mindfulness canbe really helpful with something like depressionin terms of cultivating people's capacityjust to be with the original feelingand not do all these other feelings.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: Also, the idea of being in the moment, whatever'shappening right now, can be usefulbecause it can help people.A lot of times with depression, for example, peopleget really stuck in thinking about the past and the future.So you find yourself going around and aroundkind of something that happened yesterdaythat you feel bad about.And, oh, no, I can't believe I said that thing and kindof going over and over the past and similarly thinkingabout the future.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: How am I going to possibly deal with whateverI've got going on tomorrow, imagining that I'mgoing to fail at this thing that I'm going to do tomorrow.So, obviously, a practice where you're justtrying to be in the moment, whether that'sbreathing meditation or just doing the washing upand focusing on doing the washing up, or going for a walkand just trying to be in the moment of walking and enjoyingthe surroundings, they can be a real relieffrom that depressive going over and over and over.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And, again, that's not an easy thing to do straight away.But if you practice meditation, youcan learn to become more able to be in the momentrather than going over the past and thinking about the future.And with anxiety and stress, whichare other common kind of mental health problems,the approach taken with those kindof things that involve fear and anxietyis that rather than trying to avoid whateverit is that frightens you, you finda way to engage with it mindfully.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So it's very much an approach-based systemrather than avoidance.Because part of the idea of mindfulnessis when we try and avoid things, it makes them worse.So a therapist working with someone with anxietywould be looking for ways for themto engage with the thing that frightens them,probably gradually and kind of kindly.Not shoving somebody into a terrifying situation,but cultivating the skills to be with that fear.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So you'd be kind of slowing yourself down.You're anxious.You feel your heart rate going.You feel your breath speeding up.And you're just kind of noticing those things calmly and gentlyrather than layering other emotions on top and thinking,oh, no, no, now my heart rate is goingand I'm not going to be able to remember anythingI was supposed to be saying and I'mreally scared and then kind of spiraling it.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: You kind of do the opposite and justtry and be with the feeling as it is.[For students or trainees considering specializingin Mindfulness, what are the main pathways that you wouldrecommend?]So if somebody's a student and is thinkinglike that they'd like to specialize in mindfulnessor work for the studies in this area,there is a number of useful booksthat are good starting points.So you could find some of the popular books aroundabout mindfulness and therapy at the momentand read one of those for a starting point.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And then there are lots of mindfulness courses.So it would probably be useful to do one of those coursesas a student or as a member of a grouprather than as a professional in the first instancejust say you can experience what mindfulness is likeand just find out whether it works for you.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: But then there are a number of training courses, as well.So there are several centers in the UK,for example, in Bangor and Oxford and several other placeswhere they offer training in mindfulness based therapies.If you're a therapist who's alreadytrained in another approach, then Ithink all of the approaches that we currentlyhave-- the humanistic, the psychodynamic,and CBT approaches-- all work well with mindfulness.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So you might well think of doing a short courseor, again, doing some reading and some experiential workyourself just to bring mindfulnessin with whatever approach you already come from.[What would you identify as the key challenges in Mindfulnessfor a trainee and what strategies would you advisethem to counter these challenges?]I think the main thing with mindfulnessas a challenge is that it's easy to see it as kind of a Panacea.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: There's so much at the moment about how wonderfulit is and the government is taking it seriously,and people are thinking about bringing mindfulnessinto the classroom.It's being seen as a good therapyfor pretty much any problem that somebody might have.And the important counter to thatis that it's really, really hard.I mean, I've been reading about it for over a decadeand writing about it for years and I stillfind it very difficult to simply sit and meditate.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: It's an extremely challenging thing to do.And that sounds weird, because just sitting stilland breathing sounds like one of the most easy things to do.But our lives at the moment are so kind of busy and so fullof distractions, it's easy just to get on our smartphoneand check on our emails when we've got a pause,or to watch television, or to get onwith work because we're all so busy.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: Actually taking space out of that is a big challenge.And when we finally do so, we oftenfind there's an awful lot of stuff turning around there--feelings and thoughts that aren'tthat comfortable to sit with.We have self critical thoughts going onor maybe we're quite judgmental of other people.We notice the anxieties coming upor the anger or the sad feelings.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And we kind of don't want to be with them.So I think the biggest challenge really as a therapistor as a practitioner working with mindfulnessis to make sure that you get that,that you get how hard it is and that you get thatacross to clients so that it's not like you're saying,oh, here's this wonderful solutionto all of your problems.And then when they come back next week and say,well, I found it really difficultand I just couldn't do it.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: I just wanted to turn the TV on, itdoesn't become another thing for them to feel bad about.So in order for them to not feel bad about itthey need to have a realistic idea about what it's likeand to learn to do it kindly and to learnto find ways of doing it that will work for them.So maybe for them it is about doing it over a cup of coffeein the morning in quite a pleasant way.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: Or maybe for them they find that five minutes last thingat night kind of works.Maybe it's the three minute breathing space at workor finding a way to gradually build itin in a way that's kind and gentle rather than you shouldbe meditating for 30 minutes a day,and if you find that too difficult,then that's another thing to feel bad about.[What are the characteristics necessary for an effectiveMindfulness practitioner/client relationship?]There is a really interesting setof writings at the moment coming upabout mindfulness as a way of understanding the therapistand client relationship.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So sort of seeing that as a way that mindfulness gets kind oftransmitted from the therapist to their clients.And, in a way, if you think about the therapistrelationship, it is actually these qualities of mindfulnessthat you're trying to kind of embody.You're trying to be attentive.You're trying to have this kind of equanimity or abilityto withstand whatever emotions come up in that setting.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: You're trying to be compassionate.You're trying to model those things for the client.But in a way, more than that, it'sabout making the relationship a mindfulrelationship such as that it's a relationship thatis imbued with the idea that whatever comes up is OKand that we're going to work kindly and compassionatelywith whatever feelings and thoughts arisein the relationship.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: [How do you think about the public impact of your ownresearch?]So I've started doing some research on mindfulnessrecently.And one thing I was involved with with a colleague, StevenStanley, is that we did some research where students wereencouraged to sort of standstill in a public place and justnotice-- just be in a unmindful kind of wayof being in a public place just standing still thereand kind of notice how that was for them and alsonotice how people around them were.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And, again, the idea was kind of disrupting the everyday flowof activity that people are just so busyand getting on with things and just seeingwhat is it like to really slow down and notice.And it was very interesting how the students caught themselvesthinking quite self critical kind of ideas of what'sanyone going to think of me standing still here.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: Are they looking at me?That kind of worry about how they appear to others.And they commented that it really showed themjust how much of their daily lifethey're kind of monitoring themselves and worryingabout how they appear.And, in a way, standing still enabled some of themto sort of let that lift a bit and just kind be thereand just notice all of the amazing things thatwere going on around them that most the time theywouldn't have seen.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: They wouldn't have seen that person talkingto their kids or that person with the dogor whatever it was that they were noticing.So I think that more research along those linesis quite a good idea, is really thinking about how mindfulnesscan be brought into people's daily lives and the kind of wayin which it might enable us to think a bit more criticallyabout the way we tend to go about things.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So another thing I'd like to do more ofis looking at how people might engage with social mediamindfully.Often people think of Facebook and Twitter and thingslike that as quite a mindless activity.But I'm not convinced that there aren't ways in which you couldengage with it more mindfully, as in reallytrying to notice the kind of flow of activitythat's going on there and really trying to be presentwhen you are engaging, when you're tweetingor when you're commenting on someone's Facebook.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: That's the kind of area I think would be exciting.[How do you asses the contribution of Mindfulnessto society at large?]In terms of society more broadly,I think that lots of people are sort of bringing mindfulnessin just kind of in a way to try and help individualsto overcome problems that they're having.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: So thinking can be used mindfulnesswith difficult behavior in children,or can we use mindfulness with offenders in prison,or can we use mindfulness to makepeople more productive at work.And I think this kind of misses the point.Because I think if you really learnsome of the philosophies underlying mindfulness,it actually encourages quite kind of societal shifts,because I think we live in a society at the moment thatreally encourages people to kind of monitor themselves and bequite judgmental of themselves and quitecritical of themselves and almost to focus a lot inwards.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And I think that the high rates of mental health problemsare quite related to that tendency sociallyto encourage people to constantlymonitor and criticize themselves.And I think we need to shift to a more compassionate society,both people being more compassionate toward themselvesand then hopefully a knock on effect that we can be morecompassionate to others, as well.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: And that relates to all of the big scale problems.It's quite a small scale thing-- how can webe more compassionate to ourselves and othersin our lives?But it relates to the war and conflict that's going on,it relates to discrimination and prejudice,and it relates to the way we treat our wider environment,which is obviously a key issue at the moment.So I think I'd just like to see a bit more awarenessof the fact that if our culture is really going to fully engagewith mindfulness it probably doesinvolve changing the culture, not just tryingto change individuals within it.
MEG JOHN BARKER [continued]: [MUSIC PLAYING]
Meg Barker, Mindfulness
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Dr. Meg John Barker introduces the idea of mindfulness as a therapeutic approach, a skill for counselors, and a way to change society at large through acceptance and ending judgmentalism.
Dr. Meg John Barker introduces the idea of mindfulness as a therapeutic approach, a skill for counselors, and a way to change society at large through acceptance and ending judgmentalism.